Just when the Middle East seemed to be stabilising a bit, President Trump delivered another hammer blow by withdrawing the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, 2015 (JCPOA), also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. That occurred a few months ago but the events since seem to give the US President an idea that coercion in international politics is a sure winner. His meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Singapore after a series of nuclear threats and counter-threats that looked ugly appears to reinforce Trump’s belief that talking tough gets the others to wilt.
So, are the recent threats by the US President to go to war with Iran just empty rhetoric or something more serious? On another note, what’s there for India in all this? Responding to constant US rant on regime change in Iran, President Hassan
Rouhani responded with: “Mr Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail, war with Iran is the mother of all wars.” But he hastened to add, “Peace with Iran is the mother of all peace.”
Through July ran a series of exchanges with US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, likening the Iranian leadership to the mafia and accusing Supreme Leader Khamenei of a personal hedge fund of $95 billion. Trump added presidential weight by tweeting: “Never, ever threaten the US again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before”. General Gholamhossein Gheybparvar of Iran’s Republican Guard described Trump’s remarks as “psychological warfare”.
The one man who knows what war is all about kept out of all this verbal banter. Defence Secretary James Mattis, increasingly losing advisory space to National Security Advisor John Bolton, only mentioned before a Senate sub-committee that the US was prepared for war with Iran but never said that it needed to go into such a war. People like Bolton have forgotten that the US military professionals such as Mattis have deeply analysed the last few military deployments of the US and are aware of the limitations of asymmetric wars.
Iran may be divided over the rule of the Ayatollahs but it is not an ideologically divided nation. Shiaism exhorts its followers to follow the principle of sacrifice in a perceived just cause and 98 percent of Iranians are Shia. The US does not possess the capability to fight a ‘boots on ground’ type war. It has to be a war of missiles and an air campaign aided by a naval blockade to prevent exit of energy and trade from Iran. That is fine and a war may still be winnable through that mode but not without its grim consequences for the world and perhaps for the US itself.
The simplest thing would be a phenomenal rise in the price of oil adversely affecting the global economy but probably bringing a bounty for Russia. Oil price rise would be factored in Iran’s counter-blockade of the flow of Arab oil bringing China, India and Japan into the scenario, as they would be worst hit. The Shia crescent carefully nurtured by Iran in the Levant and some percentage of the Shia in Iraq could rise and create further turbulence in the Middle East giving impetus to mass migration towards Europe and making the entire swathe of Middle East to Europe vulnerable to terror.
The situation would almost inevitably draw Israel into the conflict which would be forced to battle the Shia strength in Lebanon and Syria. More than just a localised conflict targeting Iran, this war would probably consume much of the majorly strategic parts of the Middle East. The eastern Saudi territory centred on Damam is essentially Shia and it could cause an internal chaos within Saudi Arabia the likes of which have not been witnessed there.
It is from the destruction and chaos of such complex conflicts that entities such as the Islamic State (Daesh) rise. The power of Daesh is not yet extinguished and the envisaged turbulence would help to revive it, adding to the complexity and creating more adversaries for the US. The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are well-known to the US military; it is the inexperienced civilian leadership which has its head in the sand.
For India there is too much at stake and not just energy. Approximately 11 percent of India’s energy import is from Iran and with Arab supplies also under threat, the overall energy flow would be adversely affected. Major implications on the economy would be immediately felt. Secondly the future of India’s ambitious connectivity through Chabahar Port would be adversely affected.
Already some serious connect with Afghanistan has been achieved but India is looking for more and that comes in terms of the connect with the north-south corridor to Eurasia. None of this can progress if Iran is unstable.
Lastly, for India Iran is not just another nation from whom it buys gas and oil; the civilisational connect is deep. This is something we have been unable to work on and take to a higher level. Equally our relationship with Saudi Arabia and Israel is outstanding. As one of the few nations who have a balance in relationships in the region, it is incumbent on India to play a more proactive role in defusing potential conflict here.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps